WHO Data: Combating Air Pollution Necessary to Improve Health, Meet SDGs
Photo by Patrick Hendry
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WHO estimates that around seven million people die annually from exposure to fine particles in polluted air that enter the lungs and cardiovascular system.

Speaking about the data, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said sustainable development will not be possible without action to combat air pollution.

Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, WHO, noted that the Paris Agreement on climate change is fundamentally a “public health agreement, potentially the most important public health agreement of the century”.

3 May 2018: Nine out of ten people breathe air containing high pollutant levels, according to recently-released World Health Organization (WHO) data, which acknowledge that air pollution levels remain alarmingly high in many parts of the world. The data was presented on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference, which is convening in Bonn, Germany, through 10 May 2018.

Speaking about the data, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said sustainable development will not be possible without action to combat air pollution. He added, however, that more and more governments are increasing their commitments to monitor and reduce air pollution, and that the health, transport, housing and energy sectors are taking more action as well.

If emissions are not reduced, the environmental determinants of health will be undermined, as will water supplies, air and food security.

WHO estimates that around seven million people die annually from exposure to fine particles in polluted air that enter the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing such diseases as heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory infections, including pneumonia. More than 90% of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, mainly in Asia and Africa. Almost four million people die prematurely each year from illness attributable to household air pollution from inefficient cooking practices using polluting stoves, dirty solid fuels and kerosene. The second primary cause of death is the burning of fossil fuels for power, heating and transport which leads to outdoor air pollution.

These figures could be surpassed by deaths caused by rising temperatures and extreme weather if emissions continue to rise at their present rate. During the presentation of the data, Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, WHO, noted that the Paris Agreement on climate change is fundamentally a “public health agreement, potentially the most important public health agreement of the century.” He said if emissions are not reduced, the environmental determinants of health will be undermined, as will water supplies, air and food security.

While many of the world’s megacities exceed WHO’s air quality guidelines five-fold, more countries are measuring and reducing air pollution, with an estimated 4,300 cities in 108 countries now included in WHO’s Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database. The database collects annual mean concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), which includes pollutants that threaten human health, such as sulfate, nitrates and black carbon. It also includes a summary of results, methodology used for compiling the data, and WHO country groupings.

According to WHO data, ambient air pollution concentrations in some parts of Europe and in the Americas are declining, the highest ambient air pollution levels are found in the Eastern Mediterranean Region and in South-East Asia, Africa and some areas of the Western Pacific lack adequate air pollution data, Europe has the highest number of places reporting data, and ambient air pollution levels are lowest in high-income countries.

The data include examples of actions by countries and cities. In India, one scheme has provided 37 million women with free liquid petroleum gas (LPG) connections to support their transition to clean household energy use. Mexico City has committed to cleaner vehicle standards, including a ban on private diesel cars by 2025.

WHO points out that improving air quality requires coordinated government action at all levels and across borders, including on sustainable transport solutions, more efficient and renewable energy production and use, and waste management. Regions can decrease ambient air pollutants and combat climate change by: investing in energy-efficient power generation and renewables; planning greener cities with energy-efficient buildings; and providing universal access to clean, affordable energy technology.

WHO also maintains a household energy database on technologies and fuels used for cooking, heating and lighting. The database, which is regularly updated, informs monitoring efforts of household energy access and its health impacts, contributing to SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing) and SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy). WHO is the custodial agency for: SDG indicator 3.9.1 on substantially reducing the number of deaths and illnesses from air pollution by 2030; SDG indicator 7.1.2 on the proportion of the population with primary reliance on clean fuels and technologies; and SDG indicator 11.6.2 on annual mean levels of fine particulate matter in cities. [WHO News Story] [UNFCCC News Story] [WHO Webpage on Monitoring Health for SDGs]


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